Avoiding the Complications of Diabetes

November is National Diabetes Month. This year's theme is "Diabetes is a Family Affair," reflecting the fact that this disease affects entire families, not just the person with diabetes. While people of every age can develop diabetes, it becomes more common as we grow older. Almost 26 million Americans today have diabetes—almost 8% of our population.

Diabetes develops when a person's level of blood glucose, or blood sugar, is too high. This occurs when the pancreas cannot manufacture enough insulin, a hormone that helps glucose get into your cells to provide energy—or when the cells in the muscles, liver, and fat do not use insulin properly. As a result, the amount of glucose in the blood increases while the cells are starved of energy.

The complications from the disease can be severe. They include serious problems such as heart disease, eye and kidney damage, high blood pressure, and nerve damage that could result in amputation.

While this is a very sobering list of complications, patients themselves have the power to reduce the potential for complications, and to successfully manage the disease. Self-care practices such as healthy eating, being active, monitoring blood glucose levels and not smoking can make a big difference.

So, let's review some diabetes complications, along with some positive actions that can help patients and loved ones minimize damage and improve outcome:

Nerve Damage. Nerve damage (called diabetic neuropathy) can appear as numbness, tingling, pain, perspiration problems and bladder problems. It is caused by high blood sugar. You can help control your blood sugar through eating the diet your healthcare provider suggests, as well as with exercise, taking medications correctly and frequent blood glucose level testing.

Increased Risk of Infection. For people with diabetes, high levels of blood sugar foster the growth of bacterial and fungal infections, especially common in the skin and urinary tract. You can decrease the risk of infection by keeping skin clean and dry, bathing regularly, drinking plenty of water, and reporting to the doctor if a cut doesn't heal quickly.

Impaired Vision. While many older people develop glaucoma and cataracts, people with diabetes develop them more often and at an earlier age. Over time, high blood sugar can injure the blood vessels of the eye, including the retina, lens and optic nerve. Regular eye examinations should be part of your diabetes management program, because early intervention for eye problems will help prevent more serious problems later. Remember—damage to the eyesight may not be apparent at first, so have an annual exam even if your vision isn’t bothering you.

Foot Problems. While anyone can have foot problems, people with diabetes are especially prone to corns, blisters, calluses and dry, cracked skin. Serious infection is much more common because the nerve damage described above can reduce feeling in the feet. It is important to pay attention to your feet, inspecting them regularly so problems won't worsen. Keep feet clean and dry, and talk to your healthcare provider about the best type of shoes and socks to select.

Heart or Kidney Disease. Diabetes increases the likelihood that a person will suffer from cardiac or renal disease. A healthy lifestyle and commitment to managing those conditions is very important. This includes getting the right amount and type of exercise, complying with medication instructions, quitting smoking if you do, and regular monitoring of blood sugar.

For More Information

The National Diabetes Education Program partners with other organizations to sponsor National Diabetes Month and offers a wealth of information for people with diabetes and their families.

Copyright © AgeWise, 2013